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The Way Back (8/10)

by Tony Medley

Run time 120 minutes (rated at 133, but the print I saw was 120)

OK for children.

How bad was Joseph Stalin? Even though he lived in the same century as Adolph Hitler, Stalin was by far the worst person of the 20th Century. He not only condemned millions of perfectly innocent people to death and the Siberian Gulag, he even tortured his friends to death and starved to death 34 million kulaks (prosperous landed farmers in early 20th-Century Russia). If you want to read a horror story, read his biography. Hitler was a piker compared with Stalin.

This is the story of seven men Stalin’s Communists sentenced to long terms in the Gulag in 1940. The movie shows the bleakness and the cold in which these people were forced to live, which is akin to what Solzhenitsyn describes in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. At least what this film shows about every day life in the Siberian Gulag is what I pictured when I was reading about Ivan Denisovich.

“Inspired” (as opposed to “based on”) by a book by Slaomir Rawicz called The Long Walk, seven men escaped from their gulag, including Jim Sturgess, Ed Harris, and Colin Farrell. Walking away into the forest in the middle of a snowstorm, they escaped in the dead of winter and a year later, three of them walked into India, 10,000 kilometers away, after picking up a woman, Saoirse Ronan, along the way.

Harris plays a laconic American, Mr. Smith. Farrell is a Russian criminal with silver teeth, who kills with abandon. Fortunately for all of them, Sturgess plays Janusz who has plenty of survival skills and thus becomes their leader. Janusz was sentenced to the Gulag because the Commies tortured his beautiful young wife into testifying against him. He is driven to get back to her because he still loves her.

The journey takes a year and they cross high mountains and burning deserts. It was shot in Bulgaria, Morocco, and India, and the landscapes are epic. The cinematography of the magnificent landscapes is one of the major strengths of the movie. The forest through which they traipse is so cold you almost need warm clothes to watch them. But then when they are struggling to cross the Gobi Desert, you can feel their parched thirst.

Directed (and written with Keith Clarke) by Peter Weir, this is a fine adventure story, even though it might be a little long.

January 19, 2011